Two Brooklyn-based rabbis have been arrested after police uncovered an alleged plot to kidnap recalcitrant husbands and force them to grant their spouses a divorce. The New York Times reports that Rabbi Mendel Epstein and Rabbi Martin Wolmark, along with eight members of their so-called “kidnap team,” were busted in a sting operation after agreeing to seize and torture the husband of an undercover FBI agent. The two men planned to shock their victim with tasers and stun guns until he agreed to terminate his marriage in accordance with Orthodox law.
For those unfamiliar with the details of Talmudic tradition, the entire scenario may appear especially absurd. According to the United States civil code, either party to a marriage may ask for a divorce at any time, no permission (or torture) required. However, such is not the case in certain Jewish communities.
In Orthodox Jewish tradition, marriage does not actually end until the husband presents his wife with a “get” — a document relinquishing her of wifely duties and giving her permission to see other men. No get? No divorce. And as a result, many Orthodox women find themselves trapped a marriage they no longer want because their spouse refuse to officially end the relationship.
While Talmudic law is clear that wives cannot unilaterally be granted a divorce, the Times points out that Rabbis have long employed various methods, such as exile from the synagogue, to influence reluctant husbands to do the right thing. Jewish law is not unique in using such coercive tactics. One Islamic law school, the Hanafis, also refuses to allow a woman to be divorced without her husband’s consent, even if he violates their marriage contract. However, the jurists are fully willing to put such a husband in prison, potentially indefinitely, until he agrees to release his wife from the marriage.
According to police, Epstein and Wolmark appear to have taken these types of solutions to unprecedented extremes. Authorities say the two charged women $10,000 for a rabbinical decree permitting violence against their husbands, and $50,000 for a full service kidnapping, in which the rabbis and their cronies took care of the violence themselves.
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that the rabbis may have been performing extra-legal renditions for years before finally getting caught in the act. According to the Washington Post, Epstein admitted to an undercover agent that his group committed roughly one kidnapping every year to year-and-a-half, and the United States attorney for New Jersey, Paul Fishman, told the Times that as many as a two dozen men may have been kidnapped during the Rabbi’s decade-plus long crime-spree.
Based on what Epstein told federal agents during their investigation, he seems to have avoided capture for so long because authorities were reluctant to press too far into insular community affairs. “Basically the reaction of the police is, if the guy does not have a mark on him then, uh, is there some Jewish crazy affair here, they don’t want to get involved,” Epstein explained to the undercover.
All ten defendants have thus far been denied bail, and are currently being held on kidnapping charges.